HELSINKI (AP) -- A general election in Finland was expected to result in a close finish by three political parties Sunday, with Prime Minister Sanna Marin's Social Democrats fighting to secure a second term running the government.
Over 2,400 candidates from 22 parties were vying for the 200 seats in the Nordic country's parliament, the Eduskunta. Some 40% of eligible voters cast their ballots in advance.
Marin, who at age 37 is one of Europe's youngest leaders, has received praise for her Cabinet's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and for her prominent role, along with President Sauli Niinistö, in advocating for Finland's successful application to join NATO. Her vocal support of Ukraine in the last year has increased her international visibility.
"Of course we hope that the Social Democrats will win this election ... It's so important because we want to stay an open society. We also want to work together internationally. We want to build a better green sustainable future where people have the same opportunities in life," Marin told the Associated Press while campaigning Saturday in central Helsinki.
Marin remains popular at home but her party's views on the Finnish economy, which emerged as the main campaign theme, were being challenged by two main opponents: the center-right National Coalition Party led by Petteri Orpo and the right-wing populist The Finns party, which is led by Riikka Purra.
"The most important thing in the next government is to fix our economy, push economic growth, balance public economy. And the second very important issue is to build up NATO-Finland," Orpo told the AP during a campaign event in Espoo, just outside the capital, on Saturday.
Riikka Purra stressed that the The Finns would focus on shaping Finland's migration, climate, criminal and energy policies if the populist party become a partner in the next government.
"And we also want to tighten up our attitude towards the European Union," Purra said during a campaign event in the municipality of Kirkkonummi, her home district located some 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Helsinki.
Recent polls indicated each of the three parties could take about 20% of the vote. If that happens, no party would be in position to form a government alone; whichever one wins the most votes is expected to begin talks in the next few days on forming a governing coalition.
After voting at Helsinki City Hall, university professor Mariana Seppänen said she thinks Marin's positive reputation abroad exceeds the prime minister's domestic popularity.
"I think usually the party that has been in charge and has the prime minister ... loses the election, and the criticism has been very harsh," Seppänen said. "But I think she (Marin) has a lot of support anyway."
While Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted Finland to seek NATO membership in May 2022, neither the historic decision to abandon the nation's non-alignment policy nor the war have emerged as major campaign issues. Finland shares a long land border with Russia.
Apart from Finland's economy, other issues the parties debated during the election campaign were the government's increasing debt, climate change, education, immigration and social benefits.
"I know Sanna Marin is very popular, and she has done great, and most Finns also think that she has done an amazing job with the coronavirus (pandemic)," another voter, Evelina Mäkelä, said in Helsinki.
"But maybe we have to look at the new crisis that we have; some of us still believe that she does a very good job. Other people want something new, apparently," Mäkelä said.
Finland, which is expected to join NATO in the coming weeks, is a European Union member with a population of 5.5 million.
Polls close at 1700 GMT (12 p.m. Eastern). Initial results are expected by midnight.